"I couldn't stand the sincere punks. I never believed them. Still don't." - Iggy Pop
So said the erstwhile "world's most forgotten boy" to the New York Times earlier this year. Proving, I suppose, that it's been a few seasons since he penned classics like "No Fun" and "TV Eye" after observing the social rituals of street corner hoodlums - some of whom later became his bandmates - outside his teenage record store gig.
The longevity of punk - 40-years-plus, if you start counting when Iggy walked on the audience's hands and smeared himself with peanut butter at the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival - is a thing of wonder. After the music biz's failure to sell the mid-'70s wave of New York and London punks to the mass-ass audience, local scenes continued to thrive in cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Gradually, punk spread like a virus across the USA. Bands from Bangor to Bakersfield followed the lead of Black Flag and their L.A.-based SST Records crew, who pioneered a grass-roots approach to guerrilla marketing and low-budget touring, playing house shows and DIY spots without ever aspiring to the kind of mega-success that Iggy now enjoys.
For almost a decade now, Fort Worth's 1919 Hemphill, which celebrates its tenth anniversary in October - an eternity in venue years! - has been a way station on punk's underground railroad. And from the beginning, Al Rios, who self-identifies as the spot's "old guy" at age 28, has been making things happen as a volunteer there.
"Bands complain that they can't just record an album and be millionaires anymore," he says. "But I don't think there's anything wrong with getting out there and earning your money, if that's how you want to make your living."
Rios makes his living teaching math, but he's also played in bands like Genius Party, Completely Fucked, and his current project, Special Guest. He recently shared with me a split CD that Special Guest released in tandem with another Fort Worth punk outfit, Not Half Bad, and a four-way split cassette those bands share with two others: Mean and Ugly and Downpour.
The recording on the CD (by Anthony Davis for the Special Guest tracks, Brandon Vanderford for Not Half Bad) is top-notch, with the vocals and lyrics clearly audible - a big plus, since the handwritten inserts utilize tee-tiny type that's challenging to read even with a magnifying glass. Being able to understand the lyrics is crucial to an appreciation of this music, because both of these bands are "sincere punks," and what they're proposing is nothing less than a design for principled living in these United States during the 21st century's second decade. These songs are thoughtful, literate, punk-obsessed adults' observations of the world and their relationship to it.
Special Guest's songs scan like entries in a diary. In "Pop Punk for the Punks," Rios lambastes idols of his youth whose success came at the expense of their original principles. "Homosexual Party Boat" depicts a relationship between estranged siblings, while "Two Clicks" is a plea for honesty between friends. "Make It Evil" renders the kiss-off to a wannabe, while "Here Comes Two" decries mindless nonconformity.
In "So This Is It, We're Going To Die," Rios starts coming to terms with mortality, then chooses the eternal present over the past in "I'm Too Old To Feel This Damn Young," affirming his faith in punk's communal aesthetic: "If we're doing it together, we can't do it wrong." What makes these songs work is the fire-in-the-belly with which Rios (vocal and guitar), his wife Lacey Espree (drums), and Phil Kraul (bass) put them across. Rios' raw-throated rage gives his musings a sense of real conviction, and the band backs it up with plenty of beautifully aggressive crash and thump.
Not Half Bad come across in the same manner, sonically speaking, careening along with even more reckless abandon, and a keen sense of dynamics. "Our Time" snarls at authority with an angry kid's defiance. The ne'er-do-well protagonist in "Fuck Up" demonstrates an uncanny degree of self-awareness: "Let's pretend that hindrances / had plagued me all my days / and then, I'll sigh / because I don't want to / feed you goddamn lies." "Chace's Song" tells a coming-of-age story that's been told many times (cf. James Merendino's 1999 film SLC Punk) but remains evocative, even if you know how it ends.
They save their best for last: the acoustic singalong "We're Going To Hell." Underneath the song's bravura bellowing lurks this sweet vignette: "I remember all the nights / that we'd sit out / talk and we would write / We'd tell our stories / and smoke our cigarettes until morning..."
On the cassette, Not Half Bad's "Shut Up, Margie!" crackles with electric energy and a ringing, anthemic chorus, while their "Sunday Song" finds a new use for the "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You"/"25 or 6 to 4" chord progression, with new refusenik lyrics. Special Guest's "What the Hell's That" and "Mustache Camp" are both short, sharp shocks that churn and roil with even greater fury than their songs on the CD. They finish with a cover of Urchin's "Lies," and it's emblematic of the band's aesthetic that they use the forum this release provides to shine a light on another band.
Flipping the cassette over, the four songs from Mean and Ugly suffer somewhat by comparison, sounding to these ears like inchoate slabs of feedback with inarticulately bellowed vocals. Downpour is even more overtly metallic, and their songs are more like tantrums than manifestos, but the elements in their sound are more distinct, so their impact is more cathartic - most powerfully so on the instrumental "Going Home."
Releases like these two, as diverse as they are, attest to punk's continuing vitality as an expressive medium - regardless of how its originators might regard it.
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